A Leftist in Every Bubble

What were some of the key political influences and events in your early politicization? Why do you think you went in the directions you did, as compared to many other people you knew, friends and siblings, etc., who did not follow such a path?

The obvious answer is that I have no idea, of course. But few stories come to mind.

I was born in 1977, and my parents, especially my father, is a TV news junkie. I remember being a child and seeing news of a famine in Ethiopia – I know now that it was in 1984-1985. I remember asking my father why the people in Ethiopia couldn't just come to Canada, and he couldn't answer.

When I was in high school, I had two teachers that both influenced me in different ways. One was a physics teacher, the other a history teacher. They were such strong influences that I chose physics and history as my majors in university. The history teacher – now one of my best friends, named David Power – was a voracious reader, always curious and very knowledgeable, always passing me books when I would ask him a question. Power taught European history and included the French revolution, socialism, the revolutions of 1848, the Russian revolution, it was a very unsanitized and living kind of history. His expertise was Europe, but when I asked him about the rest of the world, he encouraged my curiosity and when I wanted to write one of my essays (called an Independent Study Unit) on the Chinese revolution, he encouraged that as well.

I think because of his influence, I became obsessed with learning something about every continent. I went to the Mississauga Public Library and walked up and down the shelves. I can't remember what all I read, but I remember two things well. Gandhi's Hind Swaraj, and Eduardo Galeano's Memory of Fire. Then in my first year of university, I was commuting from my parents house and staying late on campus reading and studying, and I just browsed the shelves at the Robarts Library picking up random books in the reserve loan section, thinking that if professors were putting them on reserve, they had to be good. I found a book called Deterring Democracy by Noam Chomsky, and I sat and read, maybe the whole thing, in the library, came home really late that night. The whole time I was reading I was thinking: “I knew it, I knew it, I knew it all along!”

I think my world view was shaped between some of these people and access to these libraries.

When do you think you learned most of what you now believe, most became who you now are?

I guess I can just continue chronologically, because I think finding Chomsky's books was a major event. Searching for Chomsky on the internet led me to Z, and Z led me to most of the other things I've been doing since.

I realize that this is going to be published on Z, and that it sounds like some kind of marketing testimonial, but you, Michael, and Chomsky, and Stephen Shalom, and Cynthia Peters, were all major political influences on me.

When I was 18-20 years old, I didn't really understand the political differences between different types of activism. I joined a campus Amnesty International chapter and wrote letters for political prisoners every week. I remember a lot of letters were about Colombia, and I think the Colombian war kind of wormed its way into my consciousness at the time, though I didn't realize it. I was studying Spanish at the time as an elective, and got pretty good at it, and started looking at Spanish sources online. I discovered the Zapatistas after the Acteal massacre in 1997, and started thinking about whether there was anything I could contribute. I think I got in touch with you, then, and you put me in touch with Brian Dominick, who was also working for Znet, and you both helped me start working with Znet as a volunteer.

When I started communicating with Brian, he said: “You're in Toronto? How can you not work with OCAP?” I read his article about OCAP and was really impressed, so impressed that I related to OCAP more as a fan than anything else for years – I kind of thought, what help could I possibly offer to a group of poor people organizing themselves!

After a year or two volunteering at Znet, translating material on the Zapatistas, reading Brian's article on the Zapatistas, I got the idea that I could go to Chiapas as a human rights observer – they had a whole infrastructure set up so that people could do that. So I did that, in 2000, and did some of the first journalism I have done, through Estacion Libre – a US-based international solidarity organization, as well as Fray Bartolome de Las Casas and Enlace Civil, both Mexican organizations.

In 2001, I started studying Colombia, and went to Colombia with a Witness for Peace/SOA Watch delegation, where I met Hector Mondragon. I came back and joined the Canada-Colombia Solidarity Campaign, where I met Manuel Rozental. These two people also came to be important influences and role models for me.

By then I was solidly into Znet, I had attended ZMI, and was reading and writing commentaries. One commentary came over by Tanya Reinhart called Stop Israel! And it included some information about the International Solidarity Movement (ISM). So in 2002 I went to Palestine with ISM, and met a lot of people I admire there too: Brian Dominick and Jessica Azulay were there, but I also met Neta Golan, and other lifelong friends that I've worked with since (who I'm not sure would want to be named here).

Each of these experiences were formative, and were the foundation for the work I've done since.

When I started reading about politics as a teenager, I was reading about these larger-than-life heroic figures: Gandhi, Nehru, Ambedkar in India, and Zapata, Sandino, Bolivar, Che, in Galeano's books. That was inspiring, but it was not until I found Chomsky, and some of these other real people (you included), that I thought, these are things I can actually contribute to, or try, anyway.

You currently work in a university as faculty. How would you describe life in academia? What advice would you have for people who wish to make a social difference, but by way of work in academia?

I've written about the political aspects of work in academia before, in an essay called “Contested Spaces Worth Defending”. Basically, schools in our society are more about sorting people than they are about teaching people. Research is driven more by the need to hustle for funding than the need to discover important things. At the same time, they are still some of the only spaces for learning, discovery, debate, and discussion. What I try to tell people in academia, if anyone ever asks me, is, don't forget the real world. The standards for which you are judged in academia are different from the standards of making a social difference. You can write totally obscure things that will make no social difference and be highly successful as an academic. You can teach in a way that makes a difference in no student's life and be highly successful as an academic. But you can also try to do meaningful work, and be a good teacher. Jeff Schmidt's book, Disciplined Minds, and his idea of a “radical professional”, is something I would recommend for anyone who was thinking of becoming an academic (or a lawyer, or a doctor, etc.)

You have been involved for a long time, now, with diverse kinds of organizing. Can you tell us a bit about your focuses and experiences?

I've actually never been much of an organizer. I remember at one ZMI, Chip Berlet (who has been a real organizer, and who is an inspiration generally) was talking about these organizers who went into very racist white communities and sort of gradually made them less racist. I said, I have such contempt for racism that I don't think that I could actually do that, without leaking that contempt for the very people whose minds I was trying to change. Chip said, that's why you're not an organizer.

I know a lot of real organizers, and I think one thing they have in common is that they are really of the communities they work in. I have always had something sticking out: of Indian origin in Canada, now I've been in India three months and am basically a foreigner here, any other place I've worked, whether I've known the language or not, I'm always from somewhere else.

In 2004, I debated a representative from a right-wing think tank about Canadian foreign policy in Haiti, Iraq, and Palestine on a Canadian TV program. My friend Dan Freeman-Maloy said he thought the interview was symbolic, because the right-winger was giving the stereotypical position, and I sounded like I was just saying sensible things that the whole world agrees on, and since I look like I'm “from the world”, the optics were good.

That's not a bad way to describe how I feel, like I'm “from the world”. So I've ended up looking at things going on anywhere and everywhere. I haven't ever felt like I was choosing them, but I've found myself trying to understand different poorly understood conflicts and trying to explain their politics, in the belief that if clear understandings and clear alternatives are available, there are better chances for change.

Looking broadly at anti racist organizing – for example – your own and what you know about – what do you think have been the main successes? What have been the areas where you think things might have gone much better? What lessons do you think we might usefully draw?

The most anti-racist organizing I have done was probably with Palestine work, when I worked first with the International Solidarity Movement and then with the Coalition Against Israeli Apartheid in Toronto. With ISM, we were accompanying Palestinians, trying to raise the political cost of harming them by being there. With CAIA, I was involved in organizing events, a big conference, working on websites, etc. That might be categorized as international solidarity rather than anti-racism, but to my mind, it's racism that enables Israel to get so much international support for what it is doing to the Palestinians. In a much less organized way, I worked a lot on Haiti solidarity since the 2004 coup against Aristide, and there, too, I think racism has had a major role in shaping the foreign policy responses to events in Haiti. Also, in a less organized way, mostly through writing, I've tried to support indigenous movements in Canada – Six Nations, the Mohawks of Kahnesatake and Tyendinaga, the recent Idle No More upsurge.

In both cases – Palestine and Haiti – I think we made a difference. Just the presence of a different narrative, trying to humanize people who are totally demonized by the media and mainstream politics, gave people a chance to think independently rather than be led to racist and inhumane conclusions. In neither case were we able to have a huge impact on the ground – Israel, with plenty of help from the US and Canada, has made things worse and worse for Palestinians; the left forces in Haiti have been shattered and continue to be excluded – but, and it's hard to measure these things, I think if there were no international solidarity at all, both situations would be worse right now. And if we had been more effective, both situations would probably be better.

Where could things have gone better? I think after the Canada-Colombia Solidarity Campaign experience I thought I should have been emphasizing the Canada-side of things more, Canadian foreign policy and Canadian internal colonialism towards indigenous people. That way, as things change out in the world, at least you are accumulating some knowledge and experience where you are.

I also realized that many of us who worked on these issues in separate organizations were the same people. When we would hold events, it would be the same people going, regardless of the issue. I think a lot of people realized this, and we started thinking about whether there were alternatives to the same people working on different issues – which were really not different issues – through different organizations. In Toronto, there were different attempts to work on alternatives. There was the June 30th (2004) coalition, which became the Toronto Solidarity Project. More recently, some activists I really respect, especially Sam Gindin, have been working on the Greater Toronto Worker's Assembly, where the vision was to create a regular space for movements to get together, ultimately to make decisions and take actions together. I wouldn't say that any of these efforts was tremendously successful, and I am not exactly sure why not. My feeling is that we've been more successful at surviving than we have at growing or expanding. But I don't have a solid grasp on why, except that I think it's mainly changes in the broader society that are more and more socially fragmenting, and we are not exempt. I do think that trying to figure this one out is one of the most important things to be done.

Even more, in your own experiences around matters of race in the movement and in society, what has been most frustrating in the sense not only of personal feelings of waste, irrationality, mistreatment, etc., but also as factors that impede progress? Again, what might best be done about it?

I think the most frustrating is when sensible ideas become orthodoxies, substitute for real thinking and responding to the people around. I have encountered this over and over, and with different orthodoxies, for 14 years now. I encountered it first with Marxist groups, whose members joined the issue-based groups I was in and would try to steer conversations and decisions in ways that benefited their group in what I thought was a very undemocratic and kind of robotic way.

It took a lot of jarring experience – and a few conversations with you, and others like Rahul Mahajan – to realize that everyone is capable of those kinds of behaviours, including groups with politics I like better. So it isn't just democratic centralism, or people's war that form the basis of rigid thinking, but also identity politics and anti-oppression, and even, potentially, parecon or parsoc! I think that anything that stops us from thinking critically and anything that stops us from exercising human compassion impedes progress. That's a hypothesis, though. In my pessimistic moments, I'm not sure how much better we could have done even if we did everything right.

You have been involved in the development of ideas bearing on what has been called participatory society, mainly the cultural or race related aspects, but also more broadly. Why? That is, why give time to such pursuits -vision? What do you hope will come from it?

I've always been very interested in history, so even before I started political work I had read a fair amount about the Chinese and Russian revolutions. I respected what they tried to do, but I had also read about the famines of the Great Leap Forward, Stalin's purges, etc. So, when I found Znet and found some of your work on participatory economics, I was really impressed. I thought, here is a socialist system that doesn't have any of the unfreedom that characterized socialist economies in the past. Now I can argue for socialism with anyone, because my own objections have been answered. And I thought that the effort of trying to think through how a good society would work was really important. If you have a good vision in mind, you can be far more confident in a struggle even if it looks bleak. If you're ambivalent about what you want, I think it saps your will for fighting.

I went on and read all the radical theory that you have worked on with others over the years, and I wanted to contribute to it. So I tried to analyze institutional racism and an anti-racist society the same way you had analyzed capitalism and a participatory economy. What I was able to come up with, after reading a lot of the literature, wasn't as extensive, just the application of a few principles, but enough to help guide my own thinking, so possibly helpful to others.

Looking broadly at international solidarity work – for example – your own and what you know about – what do you think have been the main successes? What have been the areas where you think things might have gone much better? What lessons do you think we might usefully draw?

International solidarity work depends on the organization you're in solidarity with. I started my international solidarity work with the Zapatistas, which is one of the most functional, exemplary organizations that I have ever seen. They had asked for specific kinds of solidarity and worked in specific ways. Next, I worked with an array of more embattled, but still very effective Colombian organizations, especially indigenous organizations in Northern Cauca, Colombia.

When I went to Palestine and worked with ISM, I saw some new difficulties, because the Palestinian movements have difficulties. There were debates about how Palestinian activists, and therefore those of us who wanted to support them, should relate to the Palestinian Authority, for example, which was in the process of being destroyed by Israel but was also trying to negotiate with Israel as a government. Years later, a lot of the Palestinian movements united behind the BDS call, which made it much clearer how international solidarity work could proceed.

In Haiti, the coup was successful in temporarily winning over some Haitians, that had been activists in previous years, against the Duvaliers and the military regimes. Some internationals who got their information from them ended up supporting the 2004 coup, which was a remarkable failure of international solidarity.

In Iraq, we never managed to get much of a foothold with international solidarity, because activism there had been destroyed by decades of dictatorship before the 2003 US invasion. I think the way the Libya regime change progressed, and the way things in Syria are going, also show what happens when there's no space for international solidarity with the people.

In the Congo, where I've worked a little bit in the past few years, there are some similarities. There are people here and there, like Dr. Denis Mukwege in Bukavu, working truly heroically in a context that is almost unimaginable, but there's not exactly a big movement of activists and organizations that can direct international solidarity, as far as I can tell. And similarly, it seems to me, in Afghanistan. There are small groups, like RAWA, who played an important rule during the Taliban era, but again, the political stage has been so devastated that it is hard to figure out how to relate to it.

Can you concretize some of these feelings by talking a bit about your most recent travels to India and Afghanistan.

I have been based in India for the past three months and will be here for one more month. I just came back to India after spending 10 days in Kabul, where I was trying to talk to political people. I got to talk to activists, mostly off the record, and also politicians, on the record. As I said, Afghanistan is such a devastated society that movements, like the rest of society, are in bad shape.

India is on the opposite end of the spectrum in a way. India has many, very serious problems, and I am planning to write more about them, but it seems to me that what oppressed people in India need is solidarity within India itself. Unlike Latin America or the Middle East, where the US footprint is so large, the things that are being done to people in Central India, the Northeast, or Kashmir, are being done by the Indian state and by Indian corporations at least as much as foreign ones. There is certainly a role for international solidarity and, because there are such vibrant Indian movements, that solidarity has a higher chance of success, but the role of international solidarity in India I think would be to give a boost to the very strong local movements.

You are a member of IOPS – International Organization for a Participatory Society. Why? What do you hope will come from that?

I joined IOPS because it was a sincere effort to do more than what we've been doing, on a political basis of unity that I fully endorse and have no reservations about. I guess I hope that it will be able to do the kinds of things we haven't been able to do, and transcend the limits we have come up against – marginalization, co-optation, dissipation, rigid thinking.

What do you think are the most promising things you see around you, that give you a degree of hope about the future?

People, mostly. Everybody that I named in this interview, for example, but many others besides. Even in the past few months, I've met so many very impressive people who are totally dedicated to this work. Satya Sagar, a Znet writer, turned out to be even cooler in person than he was just by reading his writing. He works with a website called countercurrents.org. I have been hanging out with Farooq Sulehria, who publishes this great online magazine called Viewpoint, a real left forum in Pakistan and with a significant Pakistani audience. Farooq's contacts in Afghanistan enabled me to meet these amazing activists there, really smart people who took care of everything in a context where I was basically helpless.

In Delhi, I've been reading every little thing I could find by Arundhati Roy, as I have been doing since the 1990s. I got to meet activists like Shankar Gopalakrishnan and Himanshu Kumar here, and in Chhattisgarh, Sudha Bharadwaj, a union organizer, all through introductions by Kavita Krishnan, an amazing activist who I met thanks to Badri Raina, my adopted uncle. I just finished reviewing a book, a really sound piece of political analysis, by Nirmalangshu Mukherji, another person who clearly draws his political inspiration – in principle and in method – from Chomsky (talk to him about politics for five minutes, and if he doesn't mention Chomsky, I'll buy you lunch). I published the review on Znet of course, but I wanted to publish it in India and I sent it, fingers crossed, to this amazing multi-authored left blog called Kafila that I'd been reading since I got here in January, and I was thrilled when they just put it up.

That's far from a complete list, and that's just in the past few months. When I am feeling like things are bleak (which, admittedly, is often), I try to imagine if all these people were doing nothing, what the world would be like, and I'm sure that the processes of displacement and destruction that we are fighting against would be far advanced compared to where they are now. I'm sure that kids like the kid I was would be feeling like something was deeply wrong but never able to figure out what or why, never able to find a book that would make them say: “I knew it!”

Even if things are bad, we might be able to slow or stop them from getting worse, and we have to.

What do you see as the most daunting obstacles or problems that activists have to address and deal with, to make progress – and if you have ideas about how?

As part of a series organized on rabble.ca by Canadian activist Murray Dobbin I wrote an article called “Six questions for Leftists” a year and a half ago where I gave my thoughts on this. I think in North America there is a process of marginalization and co-optation that is extremely effective, that has put activists and activism in a kind of bubble, a specialty, a niche, that is not different from any other niche, like, you're into sports, you're into video games, I'm into activism. Actually it's even more specific niches, like: you're into brazilian jiu-jitsu, I'm into Palestine solidarity.

What to do about this? I've said before that I think that instead of a leftist bubble, we should try to have leftists in every bubble. I haven't gotten too much farther than that, but I hope to spend more time thinking that through in the next little while.

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